Say it Loud: The Bizarre, Confusing Politics of James Brown

James Brown (Mark Wilson/Getty)
James Brown (Mark Wilson/Getty)

Reaganite. Al Sharpton mentor. Strom Thurmond worshipper. The soul-funk innovator had some complex and (quite frankly) bizarre political views.

Get On Up, director Tate Taylor’s new James Brown biopic, has scored some good press lately, particularly for Chadwick Boseman’s electrifying turn as the Godfather of Soul. The film covers Brown’s mammoth talent, teenage delinquency, violent nature toward women, and his gig in war-ravaged Vietnam.

However, the movie doesn’t touch on the soul-funk innovator’s complex and (quite frankly) bizarre political views. Hell, a dramatic examination of Brown’s politics could fill a feature-length film all on its own.

“Brown’s activism, for all its public-relations value, was too idiosyncratic to echo anybody else’s ideology,” Janet Maslin wrote in The New York Times. In the mid-1960s, Brown often cancelled gigs to perform benefit shows for black civil rights groups. He urged African-American children not to drop out of school (as he himself had been forced to do in the seventh grade), efforts that earned him praise from President Lyndon B. Johnson. Brown’s “Operation Black Pride” in 1968 brought thousands of free Christmas dinners to poor black neighborhoods in New York City. And he was a mentor, close friend, and father figure to Rev. Al Sharpton. (Sharpton even owes his hairstyle to Brown, who urged the activist to get his hair straightened before the two visited the White House together in the early ’80s.)

But there’s at least one aspect of Brown political life that most definitely did notrub off on his mentee: his affection for Strom Thurmond— the severely segregationist senator from South Carolina who ran for president on a pro-segregation platform in 1948, and who spent days taking steam baths and pissed in a bucket just so he could filibuster a 1957 civil rights bill for more than a day. If Thurmond had had his way, the American system of education that Brown loved so much would have remained organized by skin color.

“Can’t do all black,” Brown said about his relationship with the senator. “He’s a friend of mine.” Beyond their friendship, Brown actually raved about Thurmond as one of the heroes of the 20th century, when asked during an interview with Rolling Stone in 1999.

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